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Where have
all the
fanzines gone?


When I started seriously collecting genre mags and fanzines in the mid-1990s - as opposed to just picking up the occasional Starburst or Fangoria - there were still a lot around: Cult Movies, Psychotronic Video, Filmfax, Video Watchdog, Alternative Cinema, Dark Terrors, Oriental Cinema, We Belong Dead, MonsterScene, Cinefantastique, Shivers, The Dark Side, Eyeball, Flesh and Blood, Fangoria, Starlog, G-Fan, Samhain, Scarlet Street... In an age when the internet was still a weird, geeky, less-than-useful thing, the only way to obtain these was from dealers at fairs and conventions or on trips to London. Whatever need took me down to the capital, I always found time to stop off at The Cinema Store (in its old location, when it was cramped and interesting and only mildly expensive and you never knew what you might find). Then I would head home on train or coach, laden with publications, often already several months old.

      Of all the titles listed above, precisely four are still going. Everything else has folded. Sometimes for understandable reasons: Cinefantastique and Scarlet Street were both strong reflections of their editors’ personalities and ceased when those editors died. ‘CFQ’ was subsequently reborn in a new format under a new editor but it bore no relation its earlier incarnation and soon folded. Sometimes things reach a natural end, like Samhain.
      Oh boy, there was a fabulous publication. But again it was a labour of love by one person: John Gullidge. Samhain ran for years; it grew and developed and covered great films - but eventually Gullidge realised that he just wanted to move on and do something else with his life. I know how he feels; I had a similar Damascene moment when I left SFX, and that was after only three years and with the full support of a large editorial team. Publishing a magazine is an enormous amount of hard work. It was even harder in the days before desk-top publishing, when the phrase ‘cut and paste’ literally involved scissors and a Pritt-stick.
      Other mags grow and develop and turn into something else. Harvey Fenton’s Flesh and Blood started out as a little black and white fanzine, swiftly expanded into a full-colour, glossy beast and then metamorphosed into the successful FAB publishing imprint which young Mr Fenton manages to this day. And still others wither and die on the vine. My own humble effort, China in Your Hand: The Frankenstein Fanzine, lasted only two issues and sold about five copies of each. It’s probably a collector’s item by now. Or maybe not. If you own a copy, hold onto it - because you sure as hell won’t get anything for it on eBay.

      Let us also spare a moment to remember Marvel UK’s Hammer Horror magazine and its sister mag Hellbreed, devoted to all things Clive Barker. Both disappeared, along with stillborn one-shots Playback (cult television) and Bizarre (weird films) in a corporate take-over known in publishing circles as the St Panini’s Day Massacre.
      There are still genre magazines out there. Richard Klemenson’s astounding Hammer mag Little Shoppe of Horrors started in 1972 - that’s the year that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was released! - and is still going. After a period when it was not so much ‘number of issues per year’ as ‘number of years between each issue’, Klemenson’s fine journal is back up to speed and, with all the advantages of modern technology, better than ever.
     Ah yes, modern technology. T’internet. The relationship between the web and fanzines is not dissimilar to the relationship between drink and lechery, as outlined by the elderly porter at the end of Act II of Macbeth: “it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” In other words, the web has made it much, much easier to find these publications, even as it has been instrumental in killing them off. Old-style film fairs are a dying species, The Cinema Store is as expensive as ever (though I still make it a regular port of call if I’m in That London) and the recent collapse of Borders/Books Etc has robbed most large British cities of the one shelf thatever  carried any American genre mags.

      Nowadays, of course, any mag worth its salt has a web presence and there are a variety of dealers, agents and importers (such as, it must be said, the fine folks at Hemlock Books). Getting hold of mags is not the problem it once was. But do we need them? Is there still a place for cult movie information printed on dead wood? China in Your Hand folded in less than a year but I’ve been running my reviews’n’interviews site MJSimpson.co.uk [www.mjsimpson.co.uk] for eight years now. The web, baby - that’s the way to go. The amount of time, effort and (crucially) cost involved in publishing a website is tiny compared to doing the same thing in print. The outlay is minimal, the requirement to stick to any sort of schedule is entirely at the editor’s discretion, and there is no need to deal with printers, distributors or retailers. I know that’s why I do it.
      I also really enjoy the freedom to write things that are as long as they need to be. When I started my site, the reviews I wrote were about 300-500 words long - because that’s the length of a typical review in print. Gradually, I realised that I could go into more and more detail, culminating in my personal experiment to see whether it was possible to write a review which addressed every single individual aspect of a film in absolutely minute detail. The result, a finely wrought treatise on the hilariously inept Evil Calls, directed by Richard Driscoll (a name which you can expect to recur in future columns), runs to a walloping 22,000 words [http://www.mjsimpson.co.uk/reviews/evilcallsa.html]. To put that in perspective, using the traditional method of estimating magazine article length - 500 words per page plus 500 for the pot, that one review/article would require 43 pages of a magazine like SFX or DeathRay.

      And I must pause here to lament the passing of DeathRay, one of the most intelligent, impressive mainstream SF/fantasy/horror mags published anywhere for a long, long time. Founded by my old mucker Matt Bielby, who created (and gave me a job on) SFX a decade earlier, DeathRay set out to do for sci-fi and fantasy what Mojo did for music. And it did it very well. For 22 issues, before eventually falling victim to, principally, a lack of advertising - taking down its five-issue-old sister mag FilmStar with it. Because it’s advertising that drives news-stand publishing, not sales. The price you pay at WH Smith for your mag just about covers printing, distribution and editorial overheads. It’s what the advertisers pay for the inside back cover that gives the publishing company its profits. And advertising is what mathematicians call ‘zero-sum’; in other words, there is only so much money to go round, however many magazines might be after part of that pot.
      You might think that fewer mags should be good news for those remaining. With the demise (in not much more than a year) of DeathRay, The Dark Side, Dreamwatch and the entire Visual Imagination stable (plus the brief, ill-conceived UK edition of L’Ecran Fantastique), SFX’s only remaining competitors for advertiser’s dosh are the awful Sci-Fi Now and the frustratingly under-ambitious Gorezone. But those advertisers are fewer and have less dosh to spend. Everything’s online. You don’t need to take a full-page ad to let people know about a new DVD release when it will be all over the web, on blogs and e-tailer sites, for free.

      Which brings us round to those three little words. Digital Versatile Disc. And a point which was made recently by Tim Lucas, editor of the long-running, still-surviving and, frankly, absolutely bloomin’ essential Video Watchdog (a mag which has always survived without carrying any advertising, interestingly enough, although American publishing business models are very different from British ones). What Tim suggested - and I believe that he spoke the truth - was that what really killed off the golden age of fanzines was not websites but DVDs.
      Because: think about why we bought those fanzines and magazines. (You’ll have noticed that I have been using those two terms interchangeably. While there are undeniable news-stand, big-league, glossy magazines - e.g. SFX - and undeniable photocopied, amateur fanzines - e.g. China in Your Hand - many of the titles so far discussed occupy the central lozenge of the genre publishing Venn diagram.) The reason why I would spend vast amounts of money on Cult Movies, Psychotronic Video, Scarlet Street and all the rest was because of the content. Which consisted primarily of two things: reviews of films that I had almost no hope of ever seeing, and interviews with film-makers too obscure to ever be troubled by the mainstream press. And I believe that was why most people bought those publications. That’s certainly what Tim Lucas’ astute editorial suggested.

      But now: now it’s difficult to think of a film that isn’t easily accessible if you want to see it. The list of old films not released on DVD gets shorter and shorter every year. Releases that boast ‘first time on DVD!’ are fewer and further between. Even if local rights issues prevent a UK release, there’s likely to be one in the USA or Germany or Hong Kong. And I can buy that if I want to. I can order, in five minutes, for $5, weird stuff direct from Thailand or the Philippines. (I can order it, receive it, add it to my TBW pile; finding the time to watch it - aye, there’s the rub.)
      And along with that accessibility comes all the extras. Frankly, I’m really not bothered about the quality of DVD image and sound as long as it meets basic requirements. It’s nice to watch a good transfer of a clean print: that’s all I ask. Who cares about Dolby 5.1? Was anybody, before Blu-Ray came along, saying, “You know, these DVDs aren’t very good, are they?” Maybe it’s the journalist in me, the quest for knowledge, or the appreciation of other people’s quest for that knowledge, but it’s the extras I like. A good, well-crafted documentary. Lots of interviews. Trailers, stills galleries, production artwork, commentaries. Provided it’s done well, of course.
      And there’s the other reason for buying fanzines accounted for. Those obscure people, those detailed articles on The Making of Film X - they’re included with the film now. We don’t need to read them in print..

      Don’t need to, but some of us still like to. The cult film magazine isn’t dead. Filmfax, Video Watchdog and G-Fan are still going; there’s Fangoria and Rue Morgue, Monsters from the Vault and Scary Monsters and Little Shoppe of Horrors and Cinema Retro and SFX and Gorezone and Is it Uncut? and Scarlet: The Film Magazine. A whole bunch more. Revivals too: Monster Attack Team has just produced its first issue for a considerable time, and talk of reviving the granddaddy of them all, Famous Monsters of Filmland, continues as it always has done (though less so of late, due to the recent outcome of acrimonious litigation).

      Different approaches to the subject, different remits, very different budgets, very different distribution. We’re no longer living through a golden age, there’s no denying that. But perhaps reports of the genre movie magazine’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. DVDs are great, websites are terrific, but nothing - mark you, nothing - will ever replace the feeling of sitting on a coach back from London, digging into a bag and bringing out a just-bought, two-month old issue of something from across the Atlantic full of reviews of films I could see but almost certainly never will and interviews with people I’ve never heard of.
      Long live the new paper!

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.